Nina LaCour is the author of Hold Still (2009), a William C. Morris Honor Book about grief and loss in the wake of a suicide, and The Disenchantments (2012), both from Dutton. Her latest novel, Everything Leads to You (Dutton, May), follows the story of Emi, a production designer for film sets in Los Angeles, whose discovery of a mysterious letter leads her to a beautiful girl named Ava, the long-lost granddaughter of one of Hollywood’s most famous actors; the two young women subsequently fall in love. PW caught up with LaCour from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her wife and their 11-month-old daughter, to talk about making movies, the need for female romances, and finding time to write.
What inspired Everything Leads to You?
Several things. I’ve always been interested in writing a book about two girls falling in love, but I don’t typically write love stories. My stories always have an element of romance, but they aren’t love stories. Writing one was a thought on the back burner for a while. So for this new one, I finally decided: I’m going to write that love story.
Then I was invited to a high school in Minnesota in 2011 for my first novel, Hold Still –it had been assigned as a school-wide read. Three thousand students were given a copy, along with the faculty and the librarians. Everyone was so incredible there – they designed a whole curriculum around the book. One of the reasons they chose it was that there was controversy surrounding the school district because nine students during a period of a couple of years had committed suicide. It really shook the community. There was some speculation that at least several of those students had been questioning their sexuality. Part of the controversy was that the school was in a very conservative area and the school had something called the “neutrality policy” which barred faculty and staff from speaking with students about their sexuality. They had to remain neutral around any “gay issues.” This ended up hurting the students, of course, because there were students being bullied and they couldn’t go to anyone to talk or to get resources and help.
In response to this policy there was a faction of open-hearted and inclusive faculty members and librarians who rallied together in support of the students, and then the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights sued the district on behalf of some of the students and ultimately the school had to change their policy.
As part of my trip there, I met with the Gay-Straight Alliance. I was prepared to talk to those students about pretty heavy things since they’d lost some friends to suicide and their school district hadn’t supported them – though, I want to be clear: they had some really supportive teachers and librarians. So I was expecting so much heavy stuff, but then a student asked, “I heard somewhere you might not be totally straight.” And I said, “Yes, well, I’m married to a woman.” And then they had all of these other questions, about whether the students that I teach know that I’m married to a woman, and if my parents know, and just generally, what was it like to be married to another woman. The more I spoke to them the more I realized that we need more affirming and happy stories about all kinds of love. But especially stories about girls falling in love and boys falling in love. After my visit with them I went back to my hotel room and decided that my next book would be about this.
Interestingly, then, Everything Leads to You is a romance between two girls, but two girls having a romance isn’t the “issue” or “problem” of the novel. Do you feel like that’s happening more often now in YA?
I’m sure that it is, but I have found that most of the books I’ve read that have gay characters have at least one of them struggling to come out or come to terms with his or her sexuality. On one hand, I think it makes sense there aren’t as many love stories that don’t have to do with identity, because as teenagers many kids are just realizing they are gay. I’m not saying that I’m doing something ground-breaking at all, either, and I really value those coming out stories, but I wish there were others. Malinda Lo’s Ash is a good example of this, I think. There is sexual awakening there, but it isn’t a crisis. But I do hope that there will be more and more books like this in the future.
In the story, your main character, Emi, discovers a lost letter at the estate sale of a famous Hollywood actor who has just died, and it leads Emi and her best friend Charlotte on a search to discover the woman for whom it was intended. What led you to include this dimension to your story?
When I was a kid I loved mysteries – I read Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes – so that’s another thing I’ve been wanting to write: a mystery. Originally, I thought I could put the love story and the mystery together, but then as I continued writing the story became less and less of a mystery. But I liked this idea of the letter and Emi and Charlotte not knowing where it would lead them. It seemed like a classic mystery element that I could have a lot of fun with.
Of Emi, Charlotte, and Ava – the girl to whom the letter leads Emi and Charlotte – which of them are most like you?
Most of all, I’m Emi. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, not in L.A., but my dad’s family is in L.A. and I’ve spent a lot of time there. I do have a love for L.A., though not as strong as Emi’s. From a very young age I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I was really focused and thought I knew a lot more than I did and had a lot of room to grow. My family has always been really supportive like Emi’s family, and Emi comes from a mixed-race family like me. My father’s side is Creole from New Orleans. I have a very diverse extended family on my father’s side.
So much of what happens in Everything Leads to You is about the movies. How did you learn about the industry?
Well, my cousin works for Fox Films in the music department and a friend of one of my best friends, Katie Byron, is a production designer like Emi. She helped me a lot. She wrote me amazing, long emails about her job. She worked on the film Like Crazy and from her experience on it I created Emi’s experience of Yes and Yes, the film she’s working on in the book.
And then, I’ve always been interested in filmmaking and recently, I turned my first book, Hold Still, into a movie with my wife and my best friend. We’d made short films together before. I would consider the film an art project – it’s not meant to hit a theater near you or anything.
I probably wouldn’t have made the movie without writing Everything Leads to You. It’s what made me think, I could do this. While I was writing the first chapter of it, my wife, my friend, and I just decided: let’s make a movie! Then we made the movie and when I was revising Everything Leads to You, we’d already made the movie so I had all of this experience to write about. I was able to add in all these filmmaking elements to it so it really changed the book.
You wrote the screenplay for Hold Still. Can you talk bit about how writing a screenplay is different than writing a novel?
It’s really different. I thought maybe I could break some rules – screenwriting has lots of rules. At first I thought that maybe I could write the scenes a lot longer than a scene theoretically should be, but then we started filming and I realized why those rules were there. Every night I was cutting dialogue! The most interesting scenes are where people don’t talk at all, where there is just, maybe, an exchanging of glances. As a fiction writer, it was such a great discovery: how you can do so much without any words at all. It was a great learning process.
When will the movie be out?
Hopefully it will be accepted to a festival, so that would be its debut – festivals want to be the first to screen it. After that, we’ll look into having others folks see it. Obviously people who contributed [LaCour raised financing through a Kickstarter campaign] will want to see it so we’ll have to find a way to distribute it in an affordable way.
In your 2009 Flying Start interview for PW, you said you were surprised to be publishing a YA novel. How do you feel about being a YA author now?
I feel great about it. My characters have gotten older and older. In my first novel my character was 15, then in The Disenchantments and Everything Leads to You they’ve all finished high school. That’s been kind of liberating. At first, I suspected I would have to always work in a high school environment and now I know otherwise. There are so many stories to tell about the teen years and I feel fortunate that we live in an era that appreciates this and that there’s a market for it.
What’s an average writing day like for you?
I don’t have any average days! I’m a disciplined person but not a regimented one. It’s different now that I have a baby since I stay at home with her. I write in the mornings before my wife goes to her traditional job; I write before dinner or after people go to sleep. One thing having a baby has done is make me realize how much time I wasted before. I used to think I could only write if I had a three-hour block of time. Now it’s such a luxury to have an hour! Sometimes I’ll even take advantage of 15 minutes to write a couple hundred words. Overall, I have less time now but I’m more effective with the time that I have.
How are you celebrating the publication of Everything Leads to You?
I used to work at a bookstore in my neighborhood in Oakland called Diesel and I’m having a party there. I’ll be doing a reading in another bookstore in Oakland, too, called A Great Good Place for Books. And there are a couple of conferences on the horizon hopefully.
What’s next for you?
I have another novel that will be coming out with Dutton and it doesn’t have a title yet. Neither my editor noragent have read a word. It takes place partly on the East Coast and partly in San Francisco. It’s a novel about grief like my others, but it’s a very different situation. That’s all I’ll say for now.
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. Dutton, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-525-425885